Thursday night started with a lot of positive energy for the Nationals.
The team was still relishing Wednesday’s blowout win over the White Sox to clinch a series victory and put them two wins away from their first 70-win season since 2019.
It was Hispanic Heritage Night at the ballpark, so all of the Nats’ Hispanic players, coaches and staff members were recognized during a pregame ceremony.
And the Nats welcomed the Commanders for the first “Capital Crossover” night as the two organizations began to start a new relationship under the football team’s new owner, Josh Harris, who threw out the ceremonial first pitch.
But once the pregame pageantry was over, the daunting challenge of beating the Braves and their major league-best record became real. That task proved too difficult on this night for the Nationals as the positive vibes quickly evaporated in a 10-3 loss in front of an announced crowd of 28,100, many of whom were wearing football gear.
The night did not go according to plan for young Jake Irvin, who had been the Nats’ best starter as of late with a 2.88 ERA over his last six starts.
Irvin had two decent innings in his first outing against one of the toughest lineups in the major leagues, but quickly discovered why the Braves are difficult to navigate. He allowed a hit and two walks his first time through the order, but wouldn’t make it past a third.
“Good hitters all the way through," Irvin said after the game. "Hats off to those guys. They put together a great year. Got to see firsthand what they can do with the plate.”
In the third inning, Irvin gave up four straight hits to the Braves’ Nos. 1-4 hitters to fall behind 2-0. He retired Marcell Ozuna for the first out, but even that ground ball scored a run to make it 3-0. A double, single and walk over the next four batters would put the Nats down 5-0 and knock Irvin from the game.
“You got to attack. You can't fall behind," manager Davey Martinez said. "Jake just fell behind a lot of good hitters. When you fall behind, you gotta give them good pitches to hit. That's what happened tonight. He threw a lot of pitches, but he fell behind a lot.”
The 26-year-old would only complete 2 ⅔ innings with seven hits, five runs, three walks and one strikeout on 80 pitches, 46 strikes.
“I think it's just kind of fighting myself at times," Irvin said. "It's tough to face a lineup like that when you don't feel 100 percent and that's that's on me. Gotta be better.”
Andrés Machado, who retired Ronald Acuña Jr. on one pitch to end the third, would complete a scoreless fourth in relief of Irvin.
Jose A. Ferrer entered to start the fifth, but gave up a hit, walk, strikeout and RBI single to make it 6-1. That gave way to Cory Abbott, who gave up a run in the seventh, a first-pitch home run to Matt Olson in the eighth and a two-run homer to Ozzie Albies in the ninth.
Abbott would finish 4 ⅔ innings on an impressive 71 pitches and 58 strikes. He also set a Nationals record with eight strikeouts in a single game by a reliever.
“Just throwing the crap out of the curveball. Just sending it," Abbott said. "Another answer is they were swinging, so just being competitive around the strike zone and let them get themselves out.”
“Corey did a great job for us. He saved our bullpen," Martinez said. "That's a tough ask for him and he did well. I know he gave up some runs, but he did well. He gave us the innings we needed. We'll have some for tomorrow in case something goes wrong, but he did a good job."
The Nationals’ bats did not have similar success against Max Fried, who they hadn’t faced since Opening Day. The left-hander had been limited to just 12 starts since, but he was 7-1 with a 2.64 ERA.
The left-hander was perfect through the first seven batters he faced before Alex Call hit his eighth homer in the bottom of the third, attempting to make up for misplaying two balls in left field in the top frame that resulted in runs.
“Two strikes, I was looking to battle and try to hit one back up the middle. Just reacted nicely,” Call said of his homer.
What about the two defensive mishaps?
“Those are plays you gotta make," he said. "I felt bad for that, but just gotta stay level and get the next one.”
The Nats managed just the one run on three hits and a walk while striking out seven times against Fried, who finished six innings on 96 pitches, 61 strikes. They managed just five hits, two walks and two runs against three Braves relievers. The runs came on RBI singles by Drew Millas and Jacob Young in the ninth.
“I think he's got a little bit of a quick arm and he pairs that with 95 (mph)," Call said of Fried. "But then he'll slow you down with like 75 on the curveball with a lot of depth. So it's kind of tough to hit them both. You kind of have to pick one, I suppose, and then just try to battle.”
“He's good," Martinez said. "He mixes up his pitches really well. He's got a good changeup. … He mixes his pitches up well. He pumps strikes. He doesn't really fall behind much. He's got a really good mix of pitches.”
The path to 70 wins won’t be easy for the Nats. They have to face these Braves six more times – three more this weekend and three in Atlanta next weekend – with two games against the American League-leading Orioles.
For now, both of those opponents still have something to play for in terms of playoff positioning. But 70 wins would be a 15-game improvement for the Nationals from last year, which would definitely be worth playing for in terms of this rebuild’s development.
“We want to be in the position they're in next year," Irvin said. "So trying to learn a lot from that.”